Aesthetic Drift #29: Chewing on the Words of Miami’s Incarcerated

Aesthetic Drift #29 by Avery Coffey

Chewing on the Words of Miami’s Incarcerated

As spring has arrived and we apprehensively wait for the new beginnings it has in store, O’Miami is finally able to host their annual poetry festival in Miami, Florida. Amongst the over sixty projects and events, they’ve chosen to partner with a non-profit organization, Exchange for Change, to give us something to chew on.

Exchange for Change is located in Miami, Florida and they calculate each step with their belief that “education is a human right”. Their students are current prison inmates. The organization’s main mission is to offer writing courses in prisons and administrating letter exchange programs between inmates and writers on the outside. This year, their project titled “Something To Chew On” will make their poems accessible to the entire community. These short, one-line pieces will be placed in gumball machines for anyone to read and discover the unspoken words of the students.

Kathie Klarreich, the executive director and founder of the organization, explained to me that there is an entire population that is incarcerated and separated from the rest of society. The writing classes teach them effective ways to communicate and help them to spread their voice to the outside of their prison walls. Their writing serves as a reminder to the public that they “deserve rights all around.”

Since Exchange for Change has begun, Klarreich is constantly surprised by the resilience of her students. Most who come to her classes are motivated and interested in spending their time productively. Especially during the pandemic, inmates displayed a large amount of humanity that she wished existed more on the outside.

When discussing the pandemic, she brought up the difficulties the organization has experienced with continuing their classes. They weren’t able to meet in person, and there was still a tremendous lack of communication between the prison facilitators and Exchange for Change. There were times when an entire section of the prison would be on lockdown, prisoners would pass away, or be transported to a different facility. All the while, Kathie and her team didn’t know anything. The pandemic has been extremely difficult, not just technologically, but emotionally as well: “the magic was in the classroom”.

April has arrived on our calendars, and many literature fans are looking forward to O’Miami’s poetry festival. Klarreich wants us to understand that her students, and all inmates, come from our population. The punishment being that they are removed from society shouldn’t follow them outside prison. They shouldn’t be treated “like a number”, but as an individual instead. If you encounter one of these gumball machines, take a moment and metaphorically chew on the words of the incarcerated.

You can explore Exchange for Change on their website. Keep an eye out for the soon-to-be published book composed of pieces from the inmates as they open up about social justice and their experiences behind bars.

Avery Coffey is collegiate writer based in Miami, Florida. She’s always had a passion for creative writing. Since entering college in 2018, she has discovered a love for using her talents to explore current events and social issues, and being a voice for others.

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